London Particulars

Source: C.H. Rolph, London Particulars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 104-107

Text: It was in the company of Mr Herbert and his Sunday School following that I made my second visit to a cinema. (The first had been in my mother’s arms at about the age of twelve months.) Since then, I had grown accustomed to the marvels of the magic lantern: first, through visits to Wally Gerrard’s house, where a magic lantern was one of the attractions, and from about 1908 onwards through our acquisition of an Army and Navy stores magic lantern, price 92 shillings and six pence with eight slides. Four slides told the story of a London Fire Brigade hero called Bob the Fireman. It seems odd to me that the second cinema visit, after a lapse of nine years should (in contrast with the first) have left in my mind virtually no record of what was shown on the screen. The explanation probably is that I was absorbed in the mechanics and showmanship of the whole thing. In the Fulham Road near the Fire Station a shop had been converted into a tiny cinema, though that is not what it was called. It was called the Parsons Green Moving Picture Theatre; and it seems a happy thought that the wonder and magic of ‘moving pictures’, even then probably twenty years old and yet growing year by year, should sustain the word ‘movie’ in our language to this day. (Not that we ever used the word then: I believe its public admission to un-American English happened in Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House towards the end of the war.) I suppose the Parsons Green Moving Picture Theatre seated an audience of thirty at the most, the front three rows of chairs being very small ones of the kind seen in nursery schools, and behind those (for the grown-ups) there were padded forms with no backs to them. Saturday performances started at 3 p.m. and the price of admission was twopence-halfpenny.

The music was provided by an old horn-type gramophone, operated by the ticket cashier, its horn protruding through a hole cut in the wall of the box-office. The films were all very short, and no doubt very old – they broke down many times in each performance. And at each breakdown a stout lady who always sat on a cushioned stool near the Exit (it was the first time I ever saw the word Exit, and to this day I don’t understand why it is better than Out) tugged at a little chain hanging from the gas-lamp near the door and, it seemed to our startled eyes, flooded the room with a dazzling light. Mr Herbert told us that the management had not learned to leave a company of children in the dark with nothing to engage their attention. An audience of grown-ups were allowed to wait in the dark, I believe, during breakdowns. But they probably knew how to pass the time.

It was I think a year or two after that (probably 1912) when my parents first took us all to the newly opened Putney Bridge Kinema: a splendid edifice, we thought, with a domed entrance; two or three hundred seats; a curtain that pulled itself, with an unforgettable swish, across the screen at the beginning and end of each picture – it bore corrugated references to what we had just seen and what was to come next; a little string ensemble eked out by an indefatigable pianist; and brown-uniformed attendants who paraded the aisles from time to time squirting deodorant over our heads (I wonder why?). The lights went up at the end of each picture, and it was then that the attendants began shouting ‘Sway out please’ and ‘Cigarette, Chocleet’. The very first time we were taken to this stately pleasure-dome, and waited while my father paid our admission fees, I leaned over and whispered in five-year-old Roland’s ear the mysterious words he must have been hearing so often from me in recent months: ‘Moving pictures!’ He tells me that once he was inside, and seated on his father’s lap, he noticed that there were indeed pictures all around the walls, and he was waiting breathlessly for them all to start moving when, to his intense disappointment, all the lights went out. It was some time before he found that everyone else was now looking at a huge illuminated square at the end of a searchlight, and even longer before he was prepared to allow that the flickering figures to be seen on it must be the moving pictures for which I had so long and so excitedly prepared him.

Visits to the Putney Bridge Kinema became a weekly occurrence, and it was there that we saw our first Charlie Chaplin film. It was called Laughing Gas, and it established a devoted family of Chaplin addicts who were never, in the next seventy years, to waver in their loyalty. The universal Chaplin impact was something I shall never really understand. For years it seemed to me that there are so many totally humourless people in the world that success on the Chaplin scale simply shouldn’t be possible, that it is a phenomenon calling for some transcendental explanation. Then I saw that this point of view merely rationalizes the feeling, in the breast of each Chaplinite, that Chaplin really belongs to him alone, that there is no one else who quite understands just how funny life can be. I do not see how this universal act of identity could have survived Charlie’s ham sociological period, his City Lights and his Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux and the rest. But when I was a boy no one could have foreseen those aberrations.

Three actresses of the time enslaved us, and at that age I was precociously ready for enslavement: ‘eleven-plus’ was for me, I now realize, a prominent emotional milestone. They personified our more ecstatic dreams of the fair: Mary Pickford, Daphne Wain, and Pearl White. Miss White held us by reason of the terrifying predicaments we always had to leave her in. As the curtain swished across at the end she was always crying for help from a seventh-floor window in a burning building, hanging by her beautifully manicured fingernails from the outside of a balloon basket, or bound and struggling gracefully in the path of an express train. Her films bore titles like The Exploits of Elaine, and it was only the need that she should survive for at least one more advertised Exploit that sent us home partly optimistic about the future. Mary Pickford and Daphne Wain held us by their beauty, whatever kind of story it had to illuminate, and they usually got their stories over in one go.

Comment: C.R. Rolph (real name Cecil Rolph Hewitt) (1901-1994) was the son of a policeman. His family lived in Southwark, then Finsbury Park, then Fulham. He became a Chief Inspector in the City of London Police, Vice-President of the Howard League for Penal Reform and served on the editorial staff of the New Statesman. London Particulars is the first of two classic volumes of autobiography.

The King and Kinemacolor

Source: D.L.W., ‘The King and Kinemacolor’, Cinema News and Property Gazette, June 1912, p. 14

Text: THE KING AND KINEMACOLOR

ROYALTY SEES ITSELF UPON THE SCREEN.

The recent visit of the King and Queen to the Scala Theatre to witness the Kinemacolor pictures of the Durbar is a unique event in the annals of Cinematography. No less than eight other Royal personages, including Queen Alexandra and the Dowager Empress of Russia, accompanied Their Majesties. The following impressionist sketch is written by a member of THE CINEMA staff whose privilege it was to be present.

A MOST interesting evening, and one that will live long in the memory.

I had heard so much about the Kinemacolor pictures of the Durbar, but like so many others I had not yet seen them. And now that I have done so words fail altogether to express one’s feelings, as one sat comfortably in a cushioned armhair and witnessed all the grand pageantry of what was, perhaps, the greatest gathering of Indian personalities that has ever been drawn to the presence of their Sovereign. Such a feast of gorgeous colouring has surely never been seen in a London theatre before. It was all very wonderful. A short journey to the Scala Theatre, which stands on the site of the old Prince of Wales’ Theatre, reminiscent of the Bancrofts and their palmy days. The lights are turned down and we are transported to that great Indian Empire which is the envy of every other civilised country in the world. Before our wondering gaze are unfolded all the magnificence, all the splendour, all the beauty of Oriental colouring, which were so remarkable a feature of the crowning of our King and Queen in India. So perfect was the reproduction of the natural colours of the scene upon the screen that it required but little effort of the imagination to see oneself a member of that vast and orderly crowd of dusky sightseers, waiting patiently with the rays of the sun beating mercilessly down upon their heads till the Emperor of all the Indies, and his Consort, appear in the vast arena.

The Royal Party.

One could almost hear the great shout of welcome from hundreds of thousands of the King’s loyal subjects as the Royal procession made its way to the beautiful canopy upon which all eyes were fixed, and Majesty seated itself upon the waiting thrones; and only a few minutes before the self-same ceremony of ushering Royalty to its seats had been enacted here before our eyes. To the Scala Theatre had come the King and Queen, with a large family party, to see once again all the glories of the great ceremony in which they had played the leading parts. In the Royal box, within a few feet of us, sat King George and Queen Mary, Queen Alexandra, the Dowager Empress of Russia, Princess Henry of Battenberg, Princess Victoria, the Grand Duchess Olga, Prince Peter, and the Duke and Duchess of Teck. Seldom, if ever, have so many Royalties been present at an ordinary performance in any theatre. The Queen wore a gown of shell pink brocade with pearl and diamond embroideries, and a diamond and sapphire tiara and necklace. Queen Alexandra was attired in dull black, but her widow’s cap was relieved in front by a small pair of diamond wings, and she wore a diamond dog collar. This, I believe was one of Her Majesty’s first appearances at a theatre since the death of King Edward.

A Memorable Occasion.

To witness the Durbar pictures in the actual presence of the King was the next best thing to seeing it in reality. Only those who were present on this memorable occasion can appreciate to the full how absolutely real the whole scene seemed. It almost lived with all its marvellous movement and sense of expansiveness, its perfect atmosphere, and its blaze of Oriental colouring, as one saw it in the company of those who had been the chief actors upon this beautiful stage. I am quite sure that everyone must have felt the same.

Silencing the King.

We were near enough to the Royal box to see how thoroughly the King and Queen and their party enjoyed the novel experience of seeing themselves as others saw them. One could also clearly hear the remarks passing between the King and Queen Alexandra, who sat next to him. Owing to the Queen Mother’s sad affliction, the King had to raise his voice somewhat in order that she might hear what he said. This led to a somewhat disconcerting — although amusing — incident. Sounds of “Ssh! Ssh!” arose from different parts of the house, and it was some little time before the audience realised that it had been endeavouring to silence the King! Such remarks as floated down to us in the stalls were full of interest, and show how thoroughly human Royalty is.

“Is that me?”

“Is that me?” — with the accent on the me. We heard the Queen distinctly ask the question of her Royal spouse. Then Queen Alexandra’s voice — soft and sweet — “Did you have to read something?” as the pictures on the screen showed Lord Hardinge handing a scroll to the King at the Durbar Shamiana, when the high officials and ruling chiefs did homage to their Sovereign. The scene which, however, seemed to impress the Royal visitors most was the review of 50,000 troops, and they applauded frequently as the wonderful picture of probably the most wonderful review which the world has ever seen unfolded itself. It is something stupendous, and the effect left upon the mind was one of inexpressible wonderment as to how it could all be reproduced so faithfully.

Mr. Charles Urban’s Greatest Film.

Of all the many pictures which Mr. Charles Urban secured in India, this is certainly the greatest and the one of which he has reason to feel most proud, for it shows more than all the others put together — fine as many of them are — how great are the possibilities of the Kinemacolor process. And mention of the inventor calls to mind the feeling of regret which was felt by all who knew the reason which prevented Mr. Charles Urban being present to share in the triumph of which this memorable evening was a fitting termination. May he soon be himself again, renewed in health and strength, to go on developing the wonderful process which he has made his own.

A Word in Conclusion.

A word in conclusion. The Royal Party came and went without ceremony. At the Scala Theatre they were received by Dr. E. Distin Maddick, and the Royal box, designed by Mr. Frank Verity, F.R.I.B.A., the architect of the theatre, was so arranged as to create the impression that the visitors were seated under the same canopy as at the Durbar. The colour scheme of the interior was pale biscuit; the roof was supported by bronze columns, and the whole was draped with a crimson valance, and decked with a profusion cf flowers and plants. As the Royal party left at the close of the performance and one made one’s way out again into the drab surroundings of Tottenham Court Road, the beautiful scenes of the Durbar floated away — away — away! But the memory of the evening with the King at the Pictures remains.

Comment: Kinemacolor was a ‘natural’ colour process, managed by producer Charles Urban, which enjoyed great commercial and social success 1909-1914, in part by targeting high society audiences. The Scala Theatre in London was used as a showcase theatre for Kinemacolor. The Delhi Durbar was a spectacular ceremony held in Delhi on 12 December 1912 to mark the coronation of King George V, and was attended by the King and Queen. The royal couple went to see themselves on the screen at the Scala on 11 May 1912. Charles Urban had fallen ill with a perforated gastric ulcer and so missed the occasion. Edmund Distin Maddick was the owner of the Scala. The film was entitled With Our King and Queen Through India.

Links: Available on the Internet Archive

The Movies in the Age of Innocence

Source: Edward Wagenknecht, The Movies in the Age of Innocence (New York: Limelight Editions, 1997 [orig. 1962]), pp. 12-13

Text: I saw my first motion picture, somewhere along about 1905 0r 1906, in a little barn-like theater at “The Chutes,” a small amusement park, at Kedzie Avenue and Van Buren Street, Chicago, where the West Side carbarns now stand. It was all about the adventures of the devil and a beautiful girl whom he had lured to his picturesque domains. From its general resemblance to the French Pathé films which I was soon to see at my first neighborhood theater, I judge it to have been of French manufacture. The devil was a prominent character in many of these early films. He was essentially the Faust operatic devil – with horns and a very realistic tail – and he usually appeared and disappeared in a puff of smoke, which, to us who were new to the movies, was in itself a very wonderful photographic effect. Indeed I have often said that the devil was the first movie star and that if we had known some of the things that the future had in store for us, we might have appreciated him more than we did.

Hell, it appeared in this old French film, was a very beautiful place, full of couches and bowers and drapes and hangings. Indeed it might be described as a kind of Frenchified version of the notion Bernard Shaw was almost contemporaneously presenting in Man and Superman. I remember very well that I, who had been taught to fear hell, and was doing my best – intermittently at least – to keep out of it, at once began to wonder if it was not possible that the place might have been maligned. I can personally testify, therefore, that the very first time I approached the movies, they proved themselves the insidiously corrupting influence which their critics have always declared them to be.

Comment: Edward Wagenknecht (1900-2004) was an American literary critic.

Louis Olivier to Louis Lumière

Source: Louis Olivier, in Jacques Rittaud-Hutinet (ed.), Letters: Auguste and Louis Lumière (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), translation by Pierre Hodgson, pp. 21-22

Text: Paris, 13 July 1895

Dear Sir,

I am writing to thank you once more for the enchanting evening you gave me and my friend last night. Wherever I was yesterday and again this morning, people said what a brilliant session it was, and how enthusiastic the audience was, as you know from the extent of the applause. We were delighted to discover these marvels, never before seen in Paris. I am sure that they will spread throughout the country.

I am most grateful to you for having given my guests a preview of this fine show which is an important landmark in the story of the photographic sciences. Allow me to compliment you, you and your brother, on the magnificent results you have obtained and to express the pleasure which I ex[p]erienced on viewing them.

Further, I enclose all the letters I received in response to my invitations, filed according to whether they are acceptances or not. Several people who said they would come did not and others who did not reply, did come. The entire Bouvier dinner came as a gang. All in all, about one hundred and fifty people probably passed through the rooms where the projection was held on Thursday night. A pleasure for everyone.

Yours etc.

Louis Olivier

Comment: The Cinématographe Lumière was shown to the Revue Générale des Sciences Pure et Appliquées in Paris on 11 July 1895. The films exhibited were La Voltige, Un Incendie, Les Forgerons, Place des Cordeliers, Répas de Bébé and Pêche aux Poissons Rouges. This was its fifth showing to private audiences. Other private shows followed before the first commercial screening on 28 December 1895.